Sabrina Pawlus is a part-time Direct Support Professional (DSP) based out of Penn-Mar’s Westminster location, but nothing is part-time about her commitment to making the world a better place.
In fact, much of Sabrina’s life is defined by her desire to support others. Prior to coming to Penn-Mar, she worked in a customer service role as the Title Clerk at a local car dealership. But she knew she wanted to do more. She has a sister who is on the autism spectrum, and so supporting people with disabilities is a mission that hits home. Luckily, her dad spotted a job opening at Penn-Mar Westminster.
In a classic small-world twist, Sabrina realized that an acquaintance from middle school, Hannah Boudreau, also worked at Penn-Mar Westminster. She knew that Hannah was passionate about the organization, and so she touched base with her, and then sent in an application. The small-world connections continued when Sabrina sat down for her interview and it was with Adam Zayed, a Westminster Support Team Manager. Adam worked a second job at Applebee’s, and he’d been Sabrina’s waiter when she’d dined there a few months previously. “I was really glad that he interviewed me and that I got to be a part of his team,” Sabrina shared. “He makes us feel heard and appreciated every day.”
Sabrina was officially hired in June 2019 and quickly became a versatile DSP, working in the Day Program, as a Job Coach, and even handling transportation. “I felt like this could be a place where I could make a difference,” she shared.
In October 2019, Sabrina transitioned to a new role, supporting a gentleman named Justin in a 1:1 capacity.
To say that Sabrina has continued to make difference since this career shift would be an understatement. “Every single day is a highlight. Working with someone 1:1 you get to be there for all the little things. And what we sometimes think of as ‘little things’ can be a really huge accomplishment. Emptying a dishwasher, for instance. Even the smallest thing can be a big deal to someone who has struggled with it.” She pauses a bit to happily reflect on some of the successes she has witnessed the person she supports achieve, “I’m going to start crying just thinking about it!”
One such ‘little thing’ sticks out in Sabrina’s memory. “Justin has a difficult time walking on snow. His little brother used to pick him up and carry him across. His brother is tall – 6’11 – but Justin’s tall, too, about 6 feet. If you ever saw them together – just this big dude carrying another big dude – you would melt.”
But last year, Sabrina worked with Justin to become comfortable walking in winter weather. “Last winter, his brother was away at college for the first time, and he was having a hard time adjusting to that. Getting him to walk on snow was a HUGE deal for us, and one day, we just did it. We got on either side of him and supported him in walking across the snow. Once he did it one time, he was comfortable. I was so, so happy.”
Much of Sabrina’s success in supporting people with disabilities to achieve their goals can perhaps be attributed to her genuine compassion.
“When Justin has a bad day, I know it’s not like what a bad day is for us. He doesn’t always have a voice, and I know that has to be frustrating. I try to be really understanding of his communication challenges. And I try to make sure all his days are good.”
Indeed, good days are a big part of Sabrina’s support style. “We have a lot of fun together. He’s definitely a people person. We just really connect. We’re both silly and easygoing.”
And when the bad days do happen, Sabrina understands that, too. “If we’re out and he’s having a bad day, I’ll just say to people, ‘He just needs a moment. Everybody just needs a moment sometimes.’ I wish that people just understood that sometimes we all just need a moment, or 10, or even an hour, just like anybody else.”
Prior to COVID-19, the dynamic duo was out-and-about quite often. “Everyone in Mt. Airy knows him and looks forward to seeing him. He’s an important part of his community.” And while COVID-19 may have sidelined some of their plans, Sabrina’s commitment hasn’t wavered. “Even though we can’t go out every day, we’re still advocating for the people we support daily.”
While Sabrina clearly has hit her stride as a DSP, she confesses that it was “overwhelming at first.” She found comfort in being part of a small group of “newbie DSPs” all sorting it out together, but notes that “training makes sense, but then you get nervous once you’re in the field. You want to learn everyone’s names right away; you want to understand each person’s preferences. It’s a lot all at once.”
“This field definitely is not for everybody. But if you have the right support of the people around you, it’s not as hard. You’re making such a difference in all these people’s lives. And you get to see it,” she states emphatically.
Sabrina also acknowledges that successfully supporting someone involves strategic collaboration with their families, their friends, and other support staff. “Together, we can provide a lot of relief for families. They have to know they can trust us implicitly. Justin’s family are such nice people. I feel like I’m part of their family.”
“Trust is the bare minimum of what DSPs need,” she continues. “Then there’s going above and beyond. Thinking of people when you’re out and about, like, ‘Oh, they’d like this! We should do this!’ It’s hard to leave work at the door; you never really turn it off.”
Sabrina’s passion for making a difference isn’t just confined to working with people. In her spare time, she juggles being a student and operating her own business, too.
In fact, she’s currently studying for a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, which she should be awarded in just a few short weeks.
Her business, Sab Paws Pet Care, LLC provides professional pet-sitting services. “I would want someone watching my pets that treats and loves them the same way I do, as if they were their own,” she shares. “So that’s what my business does.” Recently, Sab Paws Pet Care, LLC has been busy making homemade treats and selling them, with 75% of the profit going to Double Dog Dare Rescue in Frederick.
Clearly, what drives Sabrina is her desire to make the world a better place. “Knowing I’m doing things that make a difference makes it all worthwhile. Whether it’s caring for pets or supporting people with disabilities. [I want a world where] nobody is ashamed of having a disability. It’s just a part of who they are. They’re always a person first. I think a very small way we can advocate for people with disabilities is to just treat them and speak to them like people. The best way to support anybody is to just respect them. It goes a long way.”